Ancient Indian Architecture: Styles, Art and Architecture of Ancient India

By BYJU'S Exam Prep

Updated on: November 14th, 2023

Ancient Indian Architecture is as old as the history of civilization in India. India’s Indus Valley cities include the earliest observable evidence of architectural buildings. The most distinctive of India’s ancient architecture are its temples, Chaityas, Viharas, Stupas, and other places of worship. An empire’s growth and fall, the invasion of foreign rulers who later turned native, the blending of various cultures and architectural styles, and other events are all reflected in Ancient Indian architecture.

Ancient Indian architecture has a beautiful legacy of architecture, sculpture, and temple construction. Art and Architecture of Ancient Indian are an important portion of the UPSC Prelims. We have compiled some of the most important Ancient Indian Architecture in this article, relevant for the IAS Exam.

Ancient Indian Architecture

Ancient Indian Architecture dates back to the Indian Bronze Age until about 800 CE. By the time India reached this point, Buddhism had significantly diminished, Hinduism had predominated, and religious and secular architecture styles had developed, with significant regional variations.

The Indus Valley Civilization saw the emergence of its first cities during the Bronze Age. Northern Black Polished Ware and the construction of walled settlements signaled the beginning of urbanization in the Gangetic plains as early as 1200 BC.

The use of stone in Indian architecture and the circulation of Indian currency were characteristics of the Mahajanapada era. The Mauryan era is regarded as the start of India’s classical building era.

Ancient Indian architecture is divided into five major sub-parts:

  • Harappan Art and Architecture
  • Mauryan Art and Architecture
  • Post Mauryan Architecture
  • Gupta Architecture
  • South Indian Architecture

Ancient Indian Architecture During the Harappan Civilization

Compared to other recent civilizations, the architecture of the Harappan civilization was distinctive. It displays the earliest characteristics of Ancient Indian architecture. The Indus Valley Civilization spreads along with Northwestern India, and various pieces of art are showcased in the forms of seals, sculptures, potteries, jewelry, etc.

  • Two major sites, Harappa and Mohenjodaro, are the earliest and finest example of urban civic planning. There exists a planned network of roads, houses, and drainage systems.
  • The Harappan towns were designed in a rectangular grid pattern. They cut each other at right angles.
  • For construction, burnt mud bricks of standard size have been used.
  • The city was divided into 2 parts- the upraised citadel and the lower part of the city.
  • Granaries were also constructed to store grains with features like strategic air ducts and a raised platform.
  • Another important feature was the prevalence of Public baths. It shows the importance of ritualistic cleansing.
  • The Lower part of the city had small one-roomed houses. The remains of stairs indicate the presence of double-storied houses. Most buildings had properly ventilated bathrooms and private wells.
  • The most outstanding feature was an advanced drainage system. The drains were interconnected. For regular cleaning and maintenance, drains were covered loosely.

The famous Indian Architecture sites related to the Harappan civilization include that of Harappa, Mohenjodaro, Lothal, Rakhilgarhi, Ropar, Dholavira, etc. Other Indus Valley Civilisation sites are Balathal and Kalibangan in Rajasthan, Surkotda in Gujrat, Banawali in Haryana, and Alamgirpur in UP.

Ancient Architecture of India – Mauryan Period

Mauryas established their power by the 4th century BCE. The architecture and sculpture developed under the Mauryan patronage were completely demarcated from individual initiatives. Ancient Indian architecture during the Mauryan period can be classified into two parts-

  • Court Art
  • Popular Art

Court Art and Architecture

Court art consists of palaces, pillars, and stupas. Let’s discuss them in brief.

  • Palaces: Principle material used in ancient Mauryan architecture was primarily wood. Ashoka’s palace at Kumrahar was massive. It had a three-story wooden structure decorated with sculptures and carvings. The Achaemenid palaces in Iran inspired Chandragupta Maurya’s palace.
  • Pillars: Pillar inscription was a symbol of state or to commemorate battle victories and to propagate sermons. The average height of the pillar was 40 feet; made up of chunar sandstone and had four parts. A single piece of stone or monolith was used. Example: Lauria Nandangarh pillar at Champaran, Sarnath pillar.
  • Stupa: In the Buddhist tradition, the nine stupas were built after the death of Buddha. Eight of them had relics of Buddha at their Medhi, and the ninth had a pot where the relics were originally deposited. Example: Sanchi stupa in Madhya Pradesh, Piprahwa stupa in UP is the oldest.

The structure of the stupa is as shown in the figure below:

Ancient Architecture of India - structure of the stupa

Popular Art and Architecture of Ancient India

Popular art and architecture of ancient India consist of caves, pottery, and sculpture. Let us discuss them-

  • Cave Architecture: During the Ancient Indian architecture period, rock-cut cave architecture emerged. They were generally used as viharas by Jainas and Buddhist monks. These caves were marked by the highly polished finish of interior walls and decorative gateways. Example: Barabar and Nagarjuna caves in Bihar were formed by the Dasharatha king.
  • Sculpture: These were mainly used to decorate stupas in Torana and Medhi. The famous sculpture of ancient architecture during the Maurya period is Yaksha and Yakshi. Jainism, Buddhism, and Hinduism used them as an object of worship. Example: Didargunj Yakshini.
  • Pottery: Northern Black polished ware (NBPW) was generally used. They were made of fine alluvial clay and had peculiar luster and brilliance, distinguishing them from other polished wares. Black-painted lustrous were luxury items for use during the Ancient Indian period.

Post-Mauryan Ancient Indian Architecture

After the fall of the Mauryas in the second century BC, other dynasties sprang up. They were Shungas, Kanvas, and Guptas in the North and parts of central India. The Satavahanas, Ikshavakus, Abhiras, and Vakataks took control in southern and western India. There was an emergence of Brahmanical sects such as the Vaishnavas and the Shaivas in this period. Ancient Indian Architecture and the art of sculpture reached their climax in this period.

The Post-Mauryan Ancient Indian Architecture is broadly divided into three parts, namely:

Rock-Cut Caves:

  • The term “rock-cut architecture” refers to constructions such as houses and sculptures that were carved out of a single, solid natural rock exactly where it was located.
  • The most famous feature of Indian architecture is its rock-cut structures.
  • Two types of rock caves developed during the Ancient Indian Architectural period, Chaitya and Vihara.
  • Viharas consist of a veranda, a hall, and cells around the walls of the halls.
  • Chaitya halls were mainly used as prayer halls. Examples: Karle Chaitya hall, Ajanta caves, Udayagiri, and Khadagiri caves in Odisha.


  • Stupas became larger and more decorative as all four gateways were carved with beautiful sculptures.
  • Instead of wood and brick, stones were used.
  • Shunga introduced beautiful decorative gateways, also called Torans. They were evident in Hellenistic influence.
  • Example: Bharhut stupa in Madhya Pradesh, torans at Sanchi stupa.


Post-Mauryan Ancient Indian Architecture had three prominent schools – Gandhara, Mathura, and Amaravati.

  • Gandhara School was developed in the western frontiers of Punjab, near Peshawar and Afghanistan, and is also known as the Greco-Indian School of Art. Greek and Roman sculpture influenced the local tradition.
  • Mathura School developed during the 1st and 3rd centuries BC on the banks of the Yamuna river. It was influenced by all three religions – Jainism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Its characteristic feature is the use of symbolism in the images.
  • Amaravati School flourished on the banks of the Krishna river. Satvahana rulers gave patronage to this tradition. Its characteristic feature is the use of dynamic images or narrative art and the use of Tribhanga posture.

Post-Mauryan Ancient Indian Architecture

Ancient Indian Architecture During the Gupta Age

The Gupta empire emerged in the 4th century AD. This period is characterized as The Golden Period of Indian Architecture. It was classic in the sense of the degree of perfection. Ancient Indian Architecture during the Gupta Age was a perfect balance and harmony of all elements in style and iconography.

As Guptas belong to the Brahmanical religion, temple architecture reached its climax. Principle deities were: Vishnu in North and Central India, Shiva in Southern India, and Shakti in the Eastern and Southwestern parts of India.

  • Caves: The use of mural paintings on the walls of caves was a new feature. The finest example can be found in Ajanta and Ellora caves. Ajanta Caves has 29 caves, of which 25 are Viharas and 4 are Chaityas or prayer halls. Ellora Caves developed during the 5th and 11th centuries AD and has 34 caves- 17 Brahminical, 12 Buddhist, and 5 Jain. Other examples include Bagh caves, Junagadh Caves, Nashik Caves, Mandapeshwar Caves, etc.
  • Stupa: Ancient Indian Architecture during the Gupta Age saw a decline in the development of the stupa. Dhamek stupa at Sarnath is the finest example of this period.
  • Sculpture: The new Sarnath school was developed during the Gupta period. Its characteristic features were the use of cream-colored sandstone, the use of metal, the absence of nakedness, dressed sculptures, and a decorated halo around the head of Buddha. Example: Sultanganj Buddha of 7.5 feet in height.

South Indian Architecture

Temple construction is one of the most important aspects of ancient Indian architecture. The three main architectural styles used to construct ancient Indian temples are Dravida, or Southern style; Nagara, or Northern style; and Vesara, or Mixed style.

One important feature or motif that permeated all temple structures during ancient Indian architecture was decoration. The intricate architectural details and figurative sculptures of Ancient Indian temple buildings were largely concerned with adornment.

  • For instance, each temple had a garbha-griha, also known as a sanctum sanctorum, where the deity of the building resided.
  • A path for circumambulation surrounded each garbha-griha. Gates, sikharas, and gopuras were some of the additional features.

South Indian Architecture

UPSC Notes
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